While the Child Plays

Quicksand brings together Henning Mankell’s essays on what it means to be human. Here he writes on the importance of a zest for life


I am not religious, and never have been. As a child I tried to say my prayers in the evenings, but it didn’t feel right.

Now that I have cancer I often think about people who derive consolation from their faith. I respect them but I don’t envy them. But I am certain about one thing when it comes to the people who might be living on our planet many thousands of years after long and difficult ice ages. It is that they will possess a fundamental joy of life, a feeling of happiness at being alive.

People cannot survive without that. It would be like amputating a person’s soul.

We may have developed no end of survival strategies, but the basic source of energy behind our successes is our zest for life. If that is coupled with constant curiosity and thirst for knowledge, we have an image of the completely unique ability of mankind.

Animals do not commit suicide. Human beings do so when they have lost their zest for life, often due to severe physical or psycho- logical pain. Who was the first person to take his own life is a meaningless question, because it is not possible to answer it. But we have copious documentary evidence for the fact that suicide has haunted humans like a shadow throughout the ups and downs of civilisation. Even if Cleopatra didn’t actually use a snake to bite her, we can be sure that she committed suicide. Throughout history vast numbers of people have hanged themselves, drowned themselves, shot themselves or poisoned themselves. In many cases we can understand why somebody finds life impossible to endure; in other situations we are worried and astonished, filled with fear to discover how little we knew about the person who has just died.

Albert Camus wrote some famous lines: ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy.’

The answer to that question is: the zest for life.

Just what comprises zest for life is something we know much more about now than we did only thirty or forty years ago. It is ultimately to do with chemical processes. Whether we like it or not, our spiritual experiences are a matter of various measurable physiological happenings.

When I wrote before about the young man who has decided to become a neurologist, it is these processes that he will try to investigate and understand. The efforts to do so are strenuous and the results are difficult to analyse. But our understanding of the inner- most processes that make us human beings is growing by the day.

There are those who react negatively when they hear that even the most passionate feelings of love are basically a matter of chemistry. We think that love and erotic passion must be something different. And indeed they are something different. These chemical processes that blossom forth thanks to the magic of love lead to actions – everything from the giving of gifts to the writing of poetry, endless sleeplessness, jealousy or all-consuming happiness. But to start with it is cells and chemical processes that decide how we feel and how we think, how we love and how we suffer from the humiliation of jealousy.

I find it difficult to understand how these chemical processes should be thought to involve a degradation of human passions. On the contrary, I am bound to say. Michelangelo would not have painted any less brilliantly if he had known what we know today about the wonderful, invisible processes that drive the most important events and decisions in our lives.

But zest for life? It seems to me this could be illustrated as follows: a young child is sitting alone, playing. Totally absorbed in its own games and its own thoughts. And the child is singing – a wordless, humming song.

The child is like an island in an ocean, with waves flowing gently towards the beach. There are no dark banks of cloud, no threats, no fear, no pain. Life is quite simply a pleasant experience when one is able to play and hum to oneself.

Time has stood still. It doesn’t exist. The walls of the room are soft and billowy. Looking out or looking into oneself is the same thing.

The child hums and plays. Life is perfect.

Perhaps the fact is that there are emotions so strong that they can’t be expressed in words, but have to be sung? The child’s humming expresses the same thing as a Portuguese fado singer, or a soprano singing the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute.

Without a zest for life, human beings cannot exist. Anyone who has been robbed of his dignity and is fighting to recover it is fighting just as hard to recover his purpose. The people who try to escape from attacking armies or poverty-stricken agricultural communities to the richer parts of Europe and are washed up dead on the beaches of Lampedusa and Sicily were also on a journey to recover their desire for life.

Many of the emigrants who enter Europe illegally are often dismissed scornfully as ‘fortune-hunters’ or ‘gold-diggers’. Which of course they are. We all are. Why did millions of Europeans emigrate to North and South America 150 years ago? For exactly the same reason.

The humming child is always sitting there on the beach or in the garden or on the pavement.

There is no humanity, no civilisation, without the humming child. In the spartan world of biology the only imperative is that we should keep reproducing. But a more penetrating definition of the meaning of life would say that every generation has an obligation to pass on unanswered questions to the next, which must attempt to find the answers we have failed to discover.

One day, of course, this long-dance we embarked upon deep down in the mists of time when we bade farewell to the chimpanzees and went our own way, will come to an end. One thing we do know about our history is that sooner or later all creatures and species die out, or are transformed into something quite different. There is no reason to believe that this will not happen to the species we belong to. The fact that we are the most successful creatures we know of is unlikely to prevent us from dying out one of these days.

Nobody knows when or how. We might well suspect that we have such inbuilt destructive forces that we shall exterminate ourselves. But we can’t know for sure. Even today a madman with access to large nuclear weapons arsenals can put an end to everything simply by pressing a button.

Against what I have written here one could set up something I would call ‘The History of Barricades.’ All revolts or revolutions are ultimately about people at the bottom of the heap in a society demanding their right to a zest for life. Just as often as they occur, these revolts are suppressed brutally by people who claim to have the right to decide the living conditions of others.

After the student revolt of 1968 in Paris, the French authorities asphalted over the streets around the Sorbonne. Nowadays it is impossible to break up the paving stones that lie underneath. But of course nothing can prevent revolutionaries from finding other ways of building up their barricades.

Meanwhile the little child continues to play, humming its wordless melody.



Henning Mankell (and others)

In January 2014 Henning Mankell was informed that he had cancer.

However, Quicksand is not a book about death, but about what it means to be human. Mankell writes about love and jealousy, courage and fear, about what it is like to live with a fatal illness.

This book is also about why the cave painters 40,000 years ago chose the very darkest places for their fascinating pictures. And about the dreadful troll that we are trying to lock away inside the bedrock of a Swedish mountain for the next 100,000 years.

It is a book about how humanity has lived and continues to live, and about how Henning lived his own life.

And, not least, about the great zest for life, which came back when he managed to drag himself out of the quicksand that threatened to suck him down into the abyss.

Find out more about the author

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